Update: Earlier we reported Patriot Coal left the negotiation table with UMWA. A new report from BNA says Patriot Coal will return to the talks. The company denies it left the negotiations. UMWA told BNA: “We are glad this odd incident is behind us and that Patriot has changed its mind and is willing to return to the bargaining table.”
On Tuesday, negotiators from Patriot Coal walked out of talks with the Mine Workers (UMWA), leaving thousands of retirees in danger of losing their health care. The company also canceled talks scheduled through next week, UMWA reports via press release. UMWA President Cecil Roberts reported that the company and the union were only about $30 million to $35 million apart. Meanwhile, hundreds of high-paid executives at the company will be receiving about $25 million in bonuses.
We are very disappointed by this action. We had made significant progress toward reaching an agreement that provided a workable alternative to the severe terms Patriot asked for last spring and that were approved by the bankruptcy court in St. Louis. The union had agreed to more than $400 million in savings for the company over the life of the current contract, which gives them the money they say they need to survive. But that still wasn't enough for them.
UMWA said the company is moving ahead with the implementation of terms and conditions approved by a judge, which means that Patriot will cut off the current health care system for more than 23,000 retirees, their dependents and surviving spouses. The old system will be replaced with a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association that only has guaranteed funding of $15 million, plus a royalty payment of 20 cents per ton of coal produced, which is projected to raise another $5 million a year. UMWA also will be given 35% ownership in Patriot Coal, which they can sell after the value of the company—that's in bankruptcy—is established. Current retiree health care costs are about $5 million a month.
Patriot also will be able to deny all retiree health care benefits to 40% of currently active workers who have already worked enough years to earn those benefits. The company also can reduce pay, benefits and paid time off for active workers.
Roberts said UMWA will not give up the fight to make sure Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the companies that the UMWA argues set Patriot up specifically to fail to dump employee health care costs, take responsibility:
We are not letting them off the hook. We are airing a new round of television spots that feature the voices of the victims of their scheme. Thousands of us will be back in front of Peabody's offices next week, and more events are planned in St. Louis and throughout the coalfields in the coming months. No matter what the events of the next few weeks may bring, this struggle is a long, long way from being over.